Balthazar: “Why did we wait so long to go here?”

Balthazar

That’s what M and I kept saying to each other as we relaxed over a late lunch in early July. We loved everything about Balthazar: the attractive brasserie-perfect décor, which includes a capacious raw bar in the rear with the mirrored wall above on which are listed the extensive seafood selections; the ambiance, with its vibrancy and the comfortable feel of a spot that’s been there forever, though it’s been just 12 years; and, most of all the food! (More about that in a moment.) So, why was that our first visit? The only reason I can come up with for having neglected Balthazar is its location. It’s in SoHo. Well, nothing at all wrong with that – except we rarely eat “downtown.” By that, I mean it’s well below Gramercy/Flatiron. Sure, we occasionally pop down to the Lower East Side (my old stomping grounds where I grew up during the ‘40’s and ‘50’s) to scratch our pastrami itch at Katz’s, to pick up appetizing at the unparalleled Russ & Daughters, and to satisfy our sweet tooth with gelato at Il Laboratoria and/or a cupcake at Sugar Sweet Sunshine. But Tribeca and SoHo, as well as the Village, somehow manage to travel well under our restaurant-going radar. Ridiculous! Especially for born-and-bred “Noo Yawkers” like M and me.

While it has remained wildly popular with both natives and tourists since it opened in April 1997, Balthazar does have its detractors. Two criticisms have been that seating is very tight, and the noise level is exceedingly high. The former I can put up with, but noise is another matter entirely. Insanely high noise levels in restaurants drive me, well, insane, so I do my best to avoid getting myself knowingly caught in that situation. Thus, when planning our first visit to Balthazar, I decided that since they stay open all afternoon (they do switch to a smaller menu at 3), a late lunch around 2:30 mid-week would probably offer the best chance of avoiding a high noise level as the place would likely not be jammed, especially on a Monday. When I called that morning to ask if we needed reservations at that hour, my presumption was confirmed when I was told we could just walk in. Splendid!

Balthazar

The weather being pleasantly warm, we took a leisurely 40-minute stroll downtown. Entering Balthazar at exactly 2:30, we were cordially greeted by a trio of attractive hostesses. The one who escorted us to a table bore an eerily striking resemblance to one of J’s best friends. Our table was situated quite close to the front entrance, at the corner of a banquette. However, a knee-wall provided separation and protection from the comings and goings. Plus, there was nobody at the adjacent table (which remained vacant throughout our stay), so no sardine-like feel. Banquette corner seating does tend to be more roomy, as was the case here, and we had a wide view of the room directly in front of us. (Note: My attempt at taking a photo of the interior was thwarted when our waitress saw me raising my camera and hustled over to inform me that it was verboten. No such prohibition re: food photos, though.) From our vantage point, about half the tables were occupied. The noise level was a bit buzzy, which as it should be at a brasserie. Still, it was, as I had hoped, quite comfortable.

There was no shortage of service personnel on the floor. Our young waitress took care of us in a pleasant, efficient, no-nonsense manner. She even went so far as to have the soiled paper table topper changed to a fresh one between the main course and dessert.

Lamb Navarin

Anticipating our dinner that evening at Aldea, we decided to eat lightly. Towards that end, we agreed to share everything. We had each looked at the menu on the website in the morning and, independently, had reached the same conclusion as to which main course to order: Monday’s plat du jour, the lamb navarin. The bowl set before us contained a very generous portion – more than adequate for sharing — choc-a-bloc with pieces of lamb and assorted vegetables in a red wine-infused sauce. The lamb was fork-tender; the vegetables were cooked perfectly – neither too mushy nor too al dente — and the sauce was of the cannot-leave-a-drop-left variety of deliciousness. Needless to say, we made quick work of finishing every bite and drop.

Shrimp Cocktail

Sharing a shrimp cocktail is one of our favorite ways to start a meal, and we had no hesitation about ordering it here. We asked our waitress how many shrimp there were, and she said five; however, when they arrived, there were six. Three for each of us! Perfect! Half-way embedded in ice cubes to keep them chilled, these were not puny shrimp but, happily, of oxymoronic size, firm and sweet. A little squirt of lemon juice and accompanied by excellent cocktail sauce, which had just the right level of spiciness, these crustaceans made for a very fine start.

Bread Basket

Speaking of starting, let’s talk about that basket of bread which arrived shortly after we were seated. Oh, my! The plain baguette was wonderful, but the signature pain de siegle just blew me away. So much so that after we finished our lunch, we stopped into the bakery next door so I could take some home. It now supersedes the “Rosemary Round” from Amy’s as my favorite bread. Waiting for our shrimp cocktail to arrive, I slathered the excellent butter on both breads and chomped merrily away. M being similarly enamored, we easily cleaned out the basket.

Plum and Blackberry Tart

We had intended to end the meal by sharing the profiteroles. But the plum and blackberry tarte du jour intrigued us, so we decided to order both.

The tart’s ultra-thin crust was flaky; a thick, juicy layer of plums was spread on top, and three huge blackberries crowned it all. All together, a tasty tart! There was a little fruit sauce on the side, but it was really superfluous.

Profiteroles

Everything about the profiteroles — the chou puffs, the vanilla ice cream, and the warm chocolate sauce poured tableside – was to our liking. A classic French bistro dessert done perfectly! My only regret is that there were only three. I would not have complained if I could have had a second one all to myself. But fair is fair, so we split the third one. Obviously, the solution next time: a whole order just for me!

And there certainly will be a next time. Whatever faults some people might have with Balthazar, they were not on display during our lunch. We left there feeling supremely satisfied and eagerly anticipating going back.

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5 Responses to “Balthazar: “Why did we wait so long to go here?””

  1. ulterior epicure Says:

    Well, I’m certainly glad it was a success. I’m happy to hear you had better luck than I.

  2. thewizardofroz Says:

    I’m not sure it was a matter of “better luck,” u.e. Maybe I just liked the food more than you did. The fact is, though I’m picky and have high standards, you are even pickier and have far higher standards.

  3. bgut1 Says:

    And to think I thought our brunch was going to be your first visit. Nonetheless, I’m very happy you and M had a great meal. Balthazar is one of my favorites and your review did it justice. Bravo.

  4. thewizardofroz Says:

    b., Does your iPhone ding when I add a new post to my blog? lol I was surprised and, of course, very pleased to see you commenting. Again, sincere thanks for the compliments. M and I are looking forward to sharing our second visit to Balthazar next week with you and the lovely Mrs. bgut. 🙂

  5. ulterior epicure Says:

    Oh, another Balthazar visit! I look forward to hearing about it.

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